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When we think of Bordeaux the first thing that likely comes to mind is one of the Premier Crus or Grands Cru Classes. Indeed, Bordeaux produces more the world’s most expensive wines than anywhere else, but it is also important to consider that even this seemingly large quantity amounts to less than 5% of the total production of Bordeaux. The region is huge, producing over 700 million bottles per year. There are more than 50 separate appellations within Bordeaux. Compare this to another region famous for fine wine – Champagne – which has only one.
Bordeaux – both the region and the wine – is defined by its proximity to water. The massive Gironde river flows through the center of it, and is fed by two other major rivers, the Garonne in the south, and the Dordogne in the north. Each of these three is fed by countless smaller streams and tributaries. All of this water eventually ends at the Gironde estuary on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The large estuary and wide river enable the moderating climatic influence of the Atlantic to reach further inland than it otherwise would, keeping the weather more mild year round. There is generally no fear of winter freeze in Bordeaux, for example. But, the warmer weather, combined with all of that water means that mildew and rot can be a problem. Because of this, there are very few Chateaux that practice organic viticulture. Overall, the climate is mild, with a near perfect growing season of 100 days between bud break and harvest.
The rivers are also important for the Bordelais version of terroir. The Gironde divides the Left Bank from the Right Bank, and the area in between the Garonne and Dordogne has its own appellation, the Entre Deux Mers (meaning appropriately, “between two seas”). And on the Left Bank, the best vineyards are near the Gironde. They have a higher concentration of gravel and are more well draining than vineyards further away from the river. This is in contrast to many other wine appellations around the world where the soil near the rivers is more fertile and therefore less desirable for vines. For the most part, Bordeaux also lacks another geographical feature that often points to quality in wine regions – hills. Bordeaux is mostly flat, and most vineyards are planted at elevations very close to sea level. For this reason the amount of gravel in the soil is even more important.
Bordeaux is an incredibly complex and diverse region, and many attempts, called “Classifications” have been made in order to rank the Chateaux in order of quality. The first, in 1855, was for the Left Bank only and is the most famous and is the reason that the names Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion are known around the world today. The rankings were based on the cost of each at the time. So, the most expensive were at the top of the list. These wines were no doubt very high quality at the time but it would be almost 100 years before we reach the modern era of wine in Bordeaux.
After devastation by phylloxera in the 1870s, followed by downy mildew, two World Wars, sandwiched around nearly 14 years of Prohibition in the United States, the region was in a state of disarray and it was not until the 1950s that the Left Bank growths resembled the wines that we have grown accustomed to from this region. New and modern winemaking techniques improved the quality of the wine and America became the region’s largest market. In 1970 the first en primeur sales were made, beginning with America and followed by the British just a few years later. (En primeur refers to the practice of purchasing wine as a future – before it is officially released.) And it was not until 1972 that Chateaux had to bottle their own wine, something taken for granted today. In the past, merchants (ie. middlemen) would do it, or the wine would ship in bulk, and be bottled at its destination.
It was also in the 1950s that the Right Bank established its reputation internationally and decided that they needed a Classification too. So, in 1955 St. Emilion created their own. Graves, feeling like they needed in on this too, had already drawn one up for themselves in 1953.
To this day much of the mystique and reputation of Bordeaux is based on its history and the ranking on the label. Cost, with a few notable exceptions, continues to follow this model as well. But regardless of the ranking, it is true that most Bordeaux estates are large, and it is difficult to find small producers here. They do exist though, and it is worthwhile to find them for their value and expression of a small part of the terroir of this vast region.